More research findings are showing that both the Pune-based Serum Institute’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin vaccines are effective against the so-called Indian strain of coronavirus.
The new India strain B.1.617 has been called a double mutant by researchers because of the presence of two changes in the virus's genome, called E484Q and L452R. Both affect a portion of the spike protein, called the receptor binding domain, that's key to the virus entering cells.
The World Health Organization has also said the India strain is a “variant of interest” but doesn't appear to be more dangerous than the original variant.
Covaxin, the inactivated-virus vaccine being made by India's Bharat Biotech International Ltd., and AstraZeneca Plc's vaccine, called Covishield in India, are effective against the strain in preventing serious illness, said Rakesh Mishra, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, one of the labs analysing virus samples. Data is still being gathered about the response to Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, Mishra said, but it's likely to be effective.
BioNTech SE Chief Executive Officer Ugur Sahin said he was confident the mRNA shot it's making with partner Pfizer Inc. would work against the India mutant though testing is still ongoing. "The Indian variant has the same mutation that we've already investigated and against which our vaccine was also effective," he said last week.
Singapore, which tightened social distancing restrictions this week after finding cases linked to the India variant, has also seen vaccines hold up well to prevent serious illness, said Kenneth Mak, director of medical services in the city-state's health ministry, at a media briefing on Tuesday.
Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge University and his team recently studied the two mutations that appear on the receptor binding domain of the India variant's spike protein.
The team tested viruses made to simulate the variant against serum from nine people who had already received a single dose of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine.
"We wanted to know whether this double mutant really is a double whammy," said Gupta. He clarified that while each of the mutations could partly evade neutralizing antibodies, the two mutations didn't combine to create an even greater ability to evade immune protection.
"They don't combine to make a super mutant. It kind of debunks this view that this double mutant is doubly evading neutralizing antibodies," he added.
While the findings ease concerns around B.1.617, researchers are turning to the next set of variants as India's outbreak continues to rage. Genomic surveillance can provide crucial information on the new forms of this shape-shifting virus — critical in preventing subsequent waves and developing the next generation of vaccines.
The WHO has been monitoring variants through a global working group of laboratories, said Maria Van Kerkhove, the agency's technical lead officer. Information about new variants is coming in "fast and furious," she said.
However, experts say genomic sequencing that can identify new strains and track their progress will have to continue.
While countries like the U.K. monitor about 5% to 10% of cases, in India far fewer are sequenced, according to Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health in Rhode Island.